A self-professed candyfreak, Steve Almond set out in search of a much-loved candy from his childhood and found himself on a tour of the small candy companies that are persevering in a marketplace where big corporations dominate.
From the Twin Bing to the Idaho Spud, the Valomilk to the Abba-Zaba, and discontinued bars such as the Caravelle, Marathon, and Choco-Lite, Almond uncovers a trove of singular candy bars made by unsung heroes working in old-fashioned factories to produce something they love. And in true candyfreak fashion, Almond lusciously describes the rich tastes that he has loved since childhood and continues to crave today. Steve Almond has written a comic but ultimately bittersweet story of how he grew up on candy-and how, for better and worse, the candy industry has grown up, too.
Candyfreak is the delicious story of one man’s lifelong obsession with candy and his quest to discover its origins in America.
Candyfreak is the most delightful book about candy that also happens to record the author’s deteriorating mental health. What a combination: Goo-Goo Clusters, Snickers, Valomilks, and Big Hunk bars all alongside ample doses of liberal guilt, childhood neglect, failure to commit emotionally in relationships, and a dooming fear of failure! Steve Almond is a clever writer who decides to explore America’s dying Mom and Pop candy industry in order to distract himself from his own depressing life.
So basically this book is the literary version of binge-eating when you’re sad.
It’s pretty great, laugh out loud funny at times while also being terribly somber. As you will learn, in the early 1900s, the candy bar had its heyday. Across America thousands of provincial factories were pumping out regional candy bars. Years pass, a couple of world wars break out, and the zany, homegrown candy industry, like so many other industries, sublimates into three international conglomerates: Mars, Hershey’s, and Nestlé. Grandma and Grandpa’s favorite concoctions disappear to be replaced by national brands like Snickers, Three Musketeers, and the ubiquitous Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar.
It’s a sad story but not very original. Local stores are swallowed up everyday by corporations. But Almond recognizes that candy is special. We have a more intimate relationship to candy than most products. A favorite candy bar is equivalent to Proust’s madeleine: the precise crunch of the chocolate between your teeth can recall a whole barrelful of hazy childhood memories. Maybe your mom always bought you a certain treat if you were good during grocery shopping or maybe your grandparents could always be depended on having a certain chocolate goodie in a bowl on their kitchen table when you came to visit.
Candy is simply about pleasure. So candy memories are tight little balls of happiness mixed with nostalgia and thus, according to Almond, worth preserving. And he’s right. Almond embarks on an American roadtrip stopping at small, family-owned candy factories that have somehow managed to stay in business and continue serving their regional delicacies that have charmed for generations. It’s fascinating to see candy production on a small-scale; it’s devastating to realize how many of these century-old family businesses won’t see the other side of this century; it’s salivating to read pages and pages about nougats, taffies, marshmallows, chocolates, nuts, and caramels.
Candyfreak is a book for freaks—anyone desperately obsessed with anything, candy or not, will recognize herself in Almond’s effusive romp through America’s candy factories. Just be careful. You may find yourself on a boutique chocolatier’s website, considering whether the $20 price tag plus shipping for a box of only four chocolate bars is a good deal. After reading Almond’s ecstatic descriptions of these sugary delicacies, you will become another full-blown candyfreak.